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Decline in migrant workforce 'a slow-moving crisis' for northern Michigan farmers

Aaron Selbig
The Lopez family has been travelling between Leelanau County and their winter home in Texas for more than 20 years.

If you’ve picked up a box of fresh strawberries recently from a local grocery store, there’s a good chance they were handpicked by a migrant farm worker.

The workers have been coming up from their homes in Mexico or Texas for generations. But in recent years, local farmers have noticed there are fewer workers coming to northern Michigan. They’re saying the problem is likely to get much worse.

Steve Bardenhagen grew up on his family’s farm in Leelanau County.

“I can remember truckloads of people coming by, looking for work," says Bardenhagen. "We were always having to turn them away. We only had so many apartments. We didn’t have enough work or enough houses for everybody.”

In 2006, Bardenhagen bought the farm from his dad. He inherited 60 acres of cherries and strawberries but not the truckloads of people looking for work.

“That just doesn’t happen anymore," he says. "I haven’t seen that happen in a while.”

A disturbing trend

Credit Aaron Selbig
A man works on his truck in the courtyard of the Bardenhagen Farm migrant worker camp.

It’s tough to get a handle on exactly how many migrant farm workers are coming to northern Michigan these days. A recent report from the League of Women Voters of Leelanau County says the trend has been going on for about the last five years. Some growers pin it to 2012, when a bad crop year led many migrant workers to leave the area and never return.

Just a few yards outside the Bardenhagen farmhouse is the migrant worker camp. The word “camp,” though, is a holdover from a time when migrant workers slept in tents or in the chicken coop.

The camp is made up of three long apartment buildings. In the center is a courtyard, where laundry dries in the sun and an elderly man works on his Ford pickup truck.

Nancy Lopez has been coming up from Texas to work at Bardenhagen Farm for more than 20 years. The apartment she lives in isn’t exactly fancy but it has hot water, bathrooms and showers. Lopez talked to me while taking a break from putting on a new coat of paint in the kitchen.

'You should get a raise every year'

Like a lot of migrant workers, Lopez travels in a huge caravan of family and extended family. She says her family has it good here but other workers she knows from other camps are choosing not to come back to Michigan.

The biggest reason, she says, is pay. It never seems to go up.

“A lot of people don’t want to stay just at one rate," says Lopez. "I think that it’s not fair since the work out here is pretty intense. If you come every year, you should get a raise every year you come because you’re a loyal picker for the same farmer.”

Pay rates for migrant farm workers can vary quite a bit. A quick search of job postings on Michigan Works! and Craigslist shows a going rate of anywhere between nine and 15 dollars an hour.

Steve Bardenhagen says he pays the same way a lot of farmers do – by “piece rate.” That’s where you get paid based on the speed and quality of your work. But he also figures out what the hourly rate is for his 30-plus migrant workers. The best ones, he says, can make over 20 dollars an hour.

Bardenhagen says highly-skilled fruit pickers are important. And so are those who can prove they’re in the United States legally.

Immigration issues

“For a majority of the folks, I would say … immigration is an issue,” says Bea Cruz, who works with migrant families in Leelanau County, helping connect them with resources like health care and education.

Cruz says that over the last decade or so, undocumented workers have been afraid to pass through states like Georgia and Indiana, that have so-called “show your papers” laws.

She feels some of that anti-immigrant sentiment was beginning to spread north to Michigan but things may be improving.

“I have heard, this past year, that law enforcement here in Leelanau County has been more understanding of our Latino community," says Cruz. "In the past, they felt very targeted.”

Cruz says that, overall, people in Leelanau County understand how important migrant farm workers are to the local economy.

Cruz was once a migrant worker herself, travelling with her family from Texas to northern Michigan every summer. She lives here full-time now but doesn’t work in the fields anymore.

“My dad never went to school and my mom only went up to the sixth grade," she says. "And being that school was so small here and everybody is so different here. There’s not so much violence … like how it is back home. So we would always keep pushing and saying we want to stay here and we don’t want to move anymore. So they ended up saying, ‘Okay, this is where we’re going to stay.’”

An aging workforce

A lot of younger people are doing what Bea Cruz did – getting out of the fields, getting an education and moving on to a different career.

Isaiah Wunsch is an agri-business specialist with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

“You don’t see any younger families," says Wunsch. "We’re definitely seeing an aging work force and worrying about how we’ll manage that in the future.”

Wunsch is also a sixth-generation cherry farmer on the Old Mission Peninsula. He says people don’t realize just how difficult fruit picking can be. It’s back-breaking work with long hours in the elements. He’s tried to get locals to do it but other than working in supervisory positions, they’re just not interested.

He's concerned that soon, younger migrant farm workers will stop coming north.

“It’s definitely a slow-moving crisis," says Wunsch. "I think the savvy farmers are able to figure out how to manage it in the short-term but it’s a problem we’ve known about for a long time and very little has been done to work toward a solution.”